Sunday, February 2, 2014

Do these genes make me look fat?

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. It is an interesting curiosity I have noticed that we humans blame our hard work and choices for our successes, and our genetics for our failings. Let me illustrate with a few popular examples, before I get to meat of this.

First up is weight. Have you ever noticed how fat people tend to say obesity is a genetic issue, while thin people say it is a diet and exercise issue? Chunky people always have some condition beyond their control that is at the center of their chunkiness. While the fit and trim folk will go on and on about how they got and maintained their good by following the grapefruit/paleo/whole foods/atkins/etc... diet, and by their faithful adherence to the P-90X/CrossFit/Marathon/MMA/etc... exercise program. And both sides have their "Scientific" Studies to back up their claims.

Homosexuality is the other big one. Those are are, or who have close friend or relatives who are gay, are generality quite insistent it is genetic. Those who are morally opposed are generally quite insistent it is a choice. And again both sides pull out their "science" to back their claims (well, in this case, the opposed crowd mostly pulls out their religion and simply tries to overlook the science).

But with both of these the science isn't nearly as solid as people seem to think. The one most often run with on the genetic side of the argument is the claim that science has discovered the Fat/Gay gene. But the reality is they haven't. The so called fat gene (FTO gene) and gay gene (Xq28) are simply genes (or parts of) for which they have observed what appears to be a correlation.

Note the word correlation. It appears that there is a higher tendency for these markers to appear in the "afflicted" individuals, than the "non-afflicted" individuals. But it is not always the case. In fact, from what I have read, the correlation in both of these instances is not all that strong. A common illustration of the fallacy of correlation = causation is the observation that you can show a correlation between reading ability and shoe size demonstrating that people with big feet are smarter. The reality is that as children grow, their feet tend to grow, and they tend to improve at reading with practice.

What's more, once we have decided which side of the argument we believe to be true, we simply ignore any evidence which might discredit our position. Again, in the above two cases their is a growing body of evidence suggesting the environment may play a role (by environment, they don't mean just upbringing alone. They are also suggesting, that what you ate, where you lived, what chemicals you were exposed to as a child may in fact trigger the given genetic markers and/or the behavior).

And here's one that will really freak some people out. There is also mounting evidence indicating that prenatal environment impacts both of these. You have heard the phrase "You are what you eat". You may in fact be what your mother ate.

One more example just for giggles before I get to the meat of this. Did you know that there are studies which indicate that poverty is genetic? And there are, and have been some very smart people who have touted those studies as valid. Again, more recent studies have suggested that the genetic markers in question are not passed by the mother, but rather activated in the womb because of the mother's circumstances. And of course their are plenty of loudmouth radio personalities insisting that we are all born equal, and that we choose to be prosperous or poor...

I hear debates- and I regularly have my own self-debates between the genetic vs choice arguments. Chron's disease, my personal monster; I hear lots of arguments that is is hereditary, and a fair number of arguments that it is my fault. If I would have just consumed enough fish oil as a kid, or not eaten any grains, or not skipped lunches now and again, or had better sleeping habits, or performed the right exercises in the right way or...

I like the genetic arguments. They mean it isn't my fault. It was something entirely beyond my control.  I suppose parents like those argument as well, for the same reason . It absolves them of any responsibility. It was what they inherited, and then passed to their children.

When I was fit, healthy, running sub 18 minute 5K's in the mountains in my late 30's, I was happy to take the credit. It was my good diet and regular exercise. Now that things have turned... Yeah, I'd much rather it be the fault of my genes, than of my habits.

There is also in epigenetic circles a theory, that this is another one of those prenatal things. The result of being born into poverty in a first world country. The idea is that your mother's impoverished circumstances caused your genes to ramp up the immune system, because poor people tend to be exposed to more virii, bacteria and the like. But because we have done such a good job of sterilizing the first world, the now over-programmed immune system goes bonkers. The middle class is apparently hardest hit by auto-immune disorders, which backs this theory. So, hey, good news, I can now blame my mother for my physical defects, as well as my emotional ones.

Sometimes though, I do think about the what-ifs. What if I had done things differently? What if I had never gone to Florida, or Europe? What if I had eaten differently? What if I hadn't been exposed to the chemicals, pesticides, additives that are part of the modern world? What if? The answers don't really matter for me now all that much. We are all the product of consequences. The consequences of our choices, of the choices of our parents, or grandparents our neighbors... Perhaps even of people long since dead.Genes, choices, somehow it is all tangled together, an intricate, multi-dimensional tapestry. I am what I am. knowing precisely what caused won't change that for me.

It could change things for the next generation. Or the next. But if we are not willing to examine every thread carefully, we will never be able to see the picture will we? We have to be willing to consider all the possibilities, we have to be prepared to be wrong.

And as I say that, I can see in my minds eye the various followers of the choice vs. genetics arguments, nodding in agreement, as they  look expectantly at those on the opposite side.

"Understanding is a three edged sword; Your side, my side, and the truth that lies between."
        -Kosh Naranek, Babylon 5